Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How Smart Do You Have to Be To Become a Successful Academic?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, he argues that success is often the product of hard work, combined with timing, luck, and ability. He also contends that superior intelligence is not necessary for success; you just need to be over a certain threshold. (This threshold theory of intelligence was proposed by Ellis Paul Torrance, and popularized by Gladwell.) Academia would certainly count for one of the areas where a certain threshold of intelligence is required.

I think the threshold theory of intelligence is interesting for two reasons. First, we can honestly ask how you know whether or not you are over the threshold. Secondly, once you are over the threshold, you don’t have to worry about how smart you are: you just need to work hard and hope that your timing is right.

Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker (1901-1957)

Are you smart enough?

A few weeks ago, Jonathan mentioned the threshold theory on his blog. He argues
if you have a PhD from a respectable school, if you've published an article or two, if you've been engaging in the actual work in a way that's intrinsically satisfying to yourself, then you are over the threshold.
I agree with Jonathan, but I suspect he places the bar a bit too high. I think that anyone who is accepted into a graduate program at a school that consistently places students in tenure track positions and who is able to complete an M.A. thesis is likely over the threshold. I am tempted to put the bar lower, but will leave it there.

If that describes you, then we can presume you are intelligent enough to become a successful academic. You see, you don’t have to be concerned about whether or not you are the brightest in your cohort or the current star on the academic job market. You just have to be over the threshold and then work hard enough towards your success. If that does not describe you, then you might still be over the threshold, and just need to develop the skills to complete an M.A. thesis.

A Meritocracy?

It is funny to listen to myself say that if you work hard you will be successful, because I know we do not have a meritocracy in the academy, or anywhere else for that matter. However, I also know that many academics are plagued with doubt about their abilities and that these doubts keep them from being successful.

One aspect of being a successful academic is that it requires a certain set of skills. And, these skills can be learned and honed. As Malcolm Gladwell and Jonathan Mayhew argue, you need to have a certain level of ability to become a successful academic. But, as they both would likely agree, there are many more people with this ability than those who actually become successful academics.

Learning the Skills for Success

Focusing on learning and teaching skills for success is a more democratic project than attempting to identify the most intelligent people in the world. A focus on skills also will lead to more knowledge production. I am in favor of the production of knowledge and believe that our knowledge base will be substantially enhanced if we are able to draw from as wide a pool of knowledge-producers as possible. Malcolm Gladwell points out that Canada could have twice as many hockey stars as it currently does if it allowed for two leagues: one league for players born between January 1st and June 30th and another for players born on or after July 1st. Academia could probably have many more brilliant scholars if we could convince more people early on that academic success is not based on superior intelligence (a fixed trait), but on learning and mastering a set of skills (a learned trait).

In addition to describing these skills in this blog, I teach a writing and publishing class each Fall at the University of Kansas. In that class, I do my best to teach second year M.A. students the skills they need to become successful academics: time management, daily writing, planning, editing, critical thinking, and analytical skills. One semester is certainly not enough to teach all of the skills, but my intention is to create a situation where students to understand that the completion of an M.A. thesis is dependent upon learning a certain set of skills, not on being the smartest person in the room.

If you are working towards becoming a successful or more productive academic, I suggest that you think of those areas where you can improve your skill set. What are the skills you need to be successful? How can you learn them? Focusing on improving your skills as opposed to raising your IQ is much more likely to help you to become more successful.


  1. I love this! Thanks so much! I probably also would put the threshold lower. However, the problems I struggle with are the meritocracy problem and when the timing/luck isn't right. I'm thinking that in these situations we have to develop alternative paths and measures of what it means to be "successful" that may not match the predominant version?

    1. I agree with you that it is important for academics to define success differently. Also, I believe that you probably don't need to be very smart to get enrolled in grad school. However, to be a (traditional) successful academic - meaning publishing a lot of useful papers, then I would definitely say that you need to have the right aptitude (not necessary intelligent). I do want to bring to the wider audience notice that it is very tough to get academic job, which is your first step of being a successful academic. You can read more about this issue here:


  2. Great point, Anonymous! There is a big difference between success in life and success in academia. Nearly everyone reading this blog is clearly capable of both.

  3. Thank you so much for this post!

  4. Your point about the threshold being even lower than where I placed it is a good one. It hadn't occurred to me, but you are absolutely correct. I think grad students still think, "Sure, they accepted me, but did they make the correct decision. Am I really smart enough?" They have to have at least some success at the graduate level to convince themselves that they really belong. These doubts persist even beyond grad school, so I think the counter-argument is the same no matter where the exact threshold is placed. "You are smart enough, so let's get to work."

  5. Thanks, Dave! Jonathan: I also like how Gladwell talks about "luck." Many of the successful people he talks about were lucky enough to have the right opportunities and meet the right people. In academia, it is true you have to put in the hours to get results. But, you also have to be fortunate or savvy enough to find advocates. Anyway, the point is I also could have said that there is a difference between figuring out how to be a productive writer and having a successful career. The first is a necessary, but not sufficient condition.

  6. Given the current state of academic employment, I think we have to distinguish between two kinds of "success": (1) creating scholarly work and having its quality recognized in the usual ways (mostly publication, at least in the humanities) and (2) landing and keeping a job that supports the continued creation of such scholarly work. #1 is a precondition for #2, but there's also a huge luck/timing factor involved in #2. Grad students need to be aware of that, and to have a plan B that does not involve academia (but may involve continuing to pursue research and writing as a hobby, if the kind of work they want to do can be accomplished with minimal institutional support). Or, especially if they won't have time or support to pursue research as a hobby, they may want to seriously consider skipping grad school and going straight to Plan B.

    For all of the reasons above, I'd say that this advice is most useful to people who -- through ability, luck, and good timing -- have already landed a TT job, and may be having some of the lingering doubts Jonathan mentions. Before that point, it makes more sense to make choices, plans, and alternate plans based on a keen awareness of the role of factors beyond the student's control.

  7. Contingent Cassandra: I fully agree! Perhaps I should have titled this "How smart do you have to be to become a Productive Academic" or even a productive t-t faculty member. I suppose I used the more vague term success because I had just read Gladwell and was thinking about success and intelligence.

  8. Where do you think the "I'm not smart enough" comes from? Smart enough was never my doubt; knowledgeable enough, skilled enough were always where my worries lay. So maybe I'm not a good enough example but I think "not smart enough" is some sort of inculcated fear.

    I noticed that the possibility we might not be smart enough was something professors started saying around late dissertation / early assistant professor era. It was also around that time they started saying that perhaps we would become procrastinators, perhaps we would be bad at all sorts of things - which always seemed odd to me to say of people about 30 who'd been great academics and very practically minded since before high school, really. I'm starting to wonder whether it isn't or wasn't some weird form of professional hazing, some twisted test, some way to discourage the upcoming competition.

    I'm not sure about this; I do find it curious that people who obviously *must* be smart, have this much doubt about it - yet clearly, they have.

  9. Profacero:
    There is also the "imposter syndrome," where many academics think that they are just faking it. As to where this comes from, I think there is a deep cultural belief in the value of being "smart."

    Here is one hypothesis: Over the course of one's life, we become increasingly less smart than those around us, because of changing environments. Academics often grow up being the smartest in school, and then in college. In grad school, we may or may not be the smartest. Then, as faculty, we are less likely to be "the smartest."

    I guess I am not sure, but it's clear this post struck a chord with many people, meaning the sentiment is widespread.

  10. "Over the course of one's life, we become increasingly less smart than those around us": See "reference group neglect" for a search term to follow up this thought... a few pubs around, following from Camerer and Lovallo 2000.

    Thanks so much for your blog! I've really found it useful!

  11. Your blog is really motivating and helpful.

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